Everybody knows that ministry isn't for the faint of heart. I've experienced challenging circumstances in my life as a leader. Chances are, you have too. Those seasons have threatened my optimism and made me question my calling. Beyond that, a tough trek through the valleys of life can take their toll on teams. 

Just like individuals, God never promised that teams would be immune to hardship. Those difficult seasons have the potential to derail even the healthiest of teams. I've experienced this threat many times - even recently. Each time, I return to four guiding principles that have always helped me through high-stress times.

Self Care Is Incredibly Important
Take care of yourself, in every possible sense. You and I have no hope of leading people through dark places if we're not the healthiest version of ourselves that we can be.

  • Don't neglect spiritual disciplines during hard times - quite honestly, those are the times when you need to stay the most intimately connected with God.
  • Pay attention to your emotional well-being. There's no shame in counseling, so get some. I've sought out input from professional counselors (as well as trusted mentors and coaches) during seasons when I feel "fine." Sometimes you just need to make sure you really are as fine as you think you are (and be ok with the occasional discovery that you're not). 
  • Don't neglect yourself physically. I'm preaching to myself here, since I self medicate with food (Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey, in case you must know). But I'm also aware that I feel better and have an entirely differently outlook on life when I'm eating well and exercising regularly. My weight has yo-yo-ed my whole life, but I try to be mindful of the times when things have gotten out of control and I need to re-focus.

Lack of communication is the fertile soil which grows the seeds of mistrust, suspicion, and skepticism - all weeds in the garden of a healthy team. So TELL your teams that you're going to over-communicate while you're navigating challenging circumstances, then do it.

Also remember that when teams are going through tough stuff, they need to have more interaction with their leader than normal. They need to know they're loved. They need to be reassured. They need to be challenged. They need to know that you're feeling the weight of the situation too. They need to feel understood, recognized, and appreciated. Don't leave room for ambiguity during seasons of difficulty. It is the enemy of clarity.

Please do not mistake over-communicating with over-sharing. One is a healthy response during a time of crisis and helps keep teams on the same page, working together toward a common goal. The other is not.

Ask Questions
Asking questions is how we learn and this principle goes hand in hand with the idea of over-communicating. Most often, clarity doesn't just show up. It has to be sought out. And asking questions is perhaps the most proactive way to find it. Effective leaders know the best questions to ask at the right time: What do you think? Why? What made you feel that way? What led you to that conclusion? Can you help me understand that? The list of potential questions that leaders should ask is endless. 

Leaders should also create environments where their teams feel safe to question them. If you're a question-asking leader, there's a good chance that your team will learn this strategy from you and employ it. Some of the times I appreciate my team members most are when they ask a thought-provoking question for which I may not have an answer. Leaders should love learning and thrive in a question-asking culture. It helps develop an eagerness to solve problems as a team.

Always, ALWAYS Believe The Best In People
Give people the benefit of the doubt. Even if they've disappointed you before, the moment you start making assumptions, you walk out on to dangerously thin ice that probably won't hold your weight. Too many teams have been unnecessarily damaged because someone who should have loved them and had their back didn't. They believed a lie, probably unknowingly and entirely unintentionally. Don't jump to conclusions too early. Choose to believe that your frustration is just a misunderstanding until you know definitively that it's something different. This is particularly hard for people with a naturally pessimistic bent, but you'll do less damage to a team if you take an intentional step back, express a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt, ask questions to clarify, and reassess. 

These are guiding principles that have helped me though difficult seasons of leadership. But I don't think it's an exhaustive list. And because I value the process of lifelong learning, I'd love to hear your thoughts. What other principles have helped you and your teams through hard times?